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What to Do When You Find a Baby Bird on the Ground

Step one: don't take it home with you. Seriously. Stahp.
"Seriously, guys, I'm fine." -Baby quail. Image: Bryant Olsen

We interrupt our regularly scheduled programming to bring you an important message: Do not take home baby birds you find on the ground.

This week, I've had two separate friends find baby birds on the ground, snap a photo, and post a frantic message on social media asking what to do. A quick search on Twitter yielded even more evidence: nobody knows what to do when they find a seemingly helpless baby bird sitting on the ground, and a lot of them think the best thing is to take the bird home. It's not.


I spoke to Robyn Bailey, who works at the ornithology lab at Cornell University and heads up their NestWatch program (a kind of citizen science bird tracking program). She said though it's tempting to want to "rescue" a cute little baby bird peeping on the sidewalk, it's most likely completely fine.

"This time of year, baby birds are everywhere—flying around, in trees, swimming in ponds, and yes, on the ground," she told me via email. "Some of them are supposed to be there, like ground-feeding mourning doves, and some of them, well, they just learned to fly so that's to be expected."

These little balls of feathery fuzz most likely aren't orphaned or abandoned. They're in the middle of a flight lesson. It's tough for their little wings to keep them in the air, so sometimes they need a break. Rest assured, mama and papa bird are likely close by keeping an eye out. Once baby has a rest, it will try again.

Other birds might have fallen out of the nest and need a hand to get placed back inside, Bailey said. How can you tell the difference?

"Ask yourself: 'how cute is this baby bird?' Seriously," Bailey told me.

Fledglings (older birds that are learning to fly) are very cute, fuzzy, have wing feathers, and probably don't need any assistance. Nestlings (young birds that aren't ready to leave the nest) are naked little beady-eyed weirdos that, well…

"It's less cute," Bailey said. "That bird should not be out of its nest, and you should look around to see if you can locate the nest and put it back."


The difference between a nestling (left) and a fledgling (right). Image: NestWatch

If a bird is injured, you can call a local wildlife rehabilitation center to come get it, and if it's in an unsafe spot (like the middle of the road) you can move it to a nearby bush or low tree limb. Other than that, just leave it alone and it will fly home, Bailey said.

But no matter what, you definitely should not be bringing it to your home to take care of. For one, it's illegal, but it's also dangerous for the baby bird.

"It is always better for a baby bird to be raised by an adult of the same species than by a person," Bailey said. "Most nestlings are extremely hard to even identify, which would be essential for selecting an appropriate diet. Even if you know what the adults of the species eat, that is not necessarily the same food that the nestlings would be fed. There are just so many things that have to be taken into account, it's possible to do more harm than good."

Oh, and if you're worried that touching the baby will mean its parents won't recognize it, don't worry. That's a myth, Bailey said.

So next time you see a little baby bird and your deep maternal or paternal instincts start firing up, just calm down. Make sure it's uninjured, out of harm's way, and old enough to be out of a nest—then nature will take it from there.